How to learn from Sponsorships gone wrong

Sponsorship can be tricky, especially when you put the faith of your brand in someone else’s hands. Many brands have made this mistake and struggled with finding the right person, or event to represent them the right way. We wanted to give you some examples of sponsorships gone wrong to give an idea what to stir clear of and what to look out for.

Oldie but a Goldie – Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong, the world-famous American road cyclist, let down more than one brand back in 2013.  At the beginning of that year, he admitted to doping throughout his career and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) labeled him as the leader of the “most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”. Pretty big statement that Lance’s sponsors did not appreciate.

One of the cyclist’s biggest sponsors was Nike, proving that they don’t always get it right. Years earlier (2001 to be exact) before this scandal came out, Nike had produced an advert with Lance as the face of their brand saying the line “Everybody wants to know what I am on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?” = awkward.

Sponsorship gone wrong - Lance Armstrong

What to learn – This is hard, as Nike, as they said in a statement, were ‘misled for more than a decade” by Armstrong. Our advice is to make sure that if you are sponsoring an influencer/celebrity to make sure they are trustworthy. Don’t just choose the first person you see or who says yes. Do your research first and make sure they are nothing that could ruin your organisation.

When Athletes Meet McDonalds

Amazingly, McDonalds were the official food sponsor of the Olympic games from 1976 until 2017! They even had an agreement in their contract that they were the only food vendor able to sell fries within the Olympic stadium.

The Olympics is the epitome of athletes at the height of their careers and their health, which is something that McDonalds cannot relate to. McDonalds has a reputation of everything unhealthy, and yet these primed athletes have been spotted ordering 20 items at a time as the McFood is given away for free in the Olympic village.

Of course, over the years there has been backlash for this deal. Jamie Oliver, the British ‘Naked Chef’, has campaigned to have them banned as well as other healthy eating organisations. However, none of these attempts work and McDonalds dropped the deal as it wasn’t proving effective for them anymore.

Sponsorship gone wrong - Mcdonalds and the Olympics

What to learn – Choose something that matches with your brand and your brands’ ethos. It’s true that McDonalds has ‘successfully’ sponsored the Olympics for years but in the audience’s mind it just didn’t work together and not all press is good press.

Pepsi attempt to make a movement

There is a fine line between being sponsored and being an influencer. And this example falls in between that line. Pepsi used Kendall Jenner as the face of their brand back in April 2017 to create an advert. The plot behind the commercial is what caused the biggest stir.

During the advert, Kendal is modeling for a photo shoot when a protest walks past. There is no real meaning for the protest, simply a group of young people smiling, dancing and holding peace signs. Feeling enticed, Kendall joins them on their march before getting stopped by a line of police, where she ‘bravely’ steps forward and hands one of the policemen a Pepsi. This seems to go down well for the police and they smile and relax, letting them carry on with their protest.

This commercial was not a success. Hundreds of people took to Twitter to juxtapose images from the commercial with real-life photographs of protest, especially those including people of colour and how the American police force has not treated them. Even Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, tweeted a photo with the caption “If only Daddy had would have known about the power of Pepsi.”

What to learn – I chose this example to show that even if the sponsorship deal is good, the way that it was carried out failed. Both Pepsi and Kendall Jenner issued an apology and the ad was taken off the air. If you are sponsoring an event in your field and the event has a controversial speaker, be aware of this. Watch out for how your sponsor is being seen.

Wonga’s big mistake

Wonga starting sponsoring Newcastle United; an English Premier League football team, back in 2012 and was hit with criticism straight away. Even politicians  had something to say about the deal with Labour MP Stella Creasy saying: “It is only through preying on families struggling to make ends meet that Wonga has made enough money to be able to sign this deal with Newcastle.” But this isn’t why they have made the list.

In 2015, hours before Newcastle United’s newest kit was being unveiled, Wonga released their new branding and a whole new logo. Which would be fine if they had remembered to tell the football team. Therefore during the kit released the old Wonga logo was revealed. A huge disappointment for both sides! Newcastle United have the embarrassment of being seen in an old logo whilst Wonga miss a huge opportunity to show off their new branding to the world.

Sponsorship gone wrong - wonga and newcastle united

What to learn – Don’t forget about your sponsors. Utilise them! Wonga just gave Newcastle United their money and thought that the sponsorship would run itself, however, you need to have an input into how your brand is being seen through them. Whether on a kit or product, make sure your design is correct and looks the best! Or at an event, have an input on what will be happening there. This will help your brand in the long run.

Most of these examples are from human mistakes and that is an issue when putting a person as the face of your brand. After all, we’re not perfect, therefore asking us to be is surely asking for trouble. Take a look at Ellen at the 2014 Oscars tweeting from her iPhone when she was being sponsored by Samsung. But there are certain things you can do to put your brand in a safer place. Choose your sponsor wisely, research them/the event, have your input on what is going to happen and how to make sure that you are seen in the best light. Set out clear rules for what can and can’t happen and if something does go wrong, apologise from the heart and be sincere. Or even stick by your sponsor if its something that can be forgiven, and prove that you are trustworthy by following through with your deal.


Choose what is best for you and your organisation and try not to make these mistakes.

Making impactful projects easier since 2011.
Optimy is the most customer-centric software
for sponsorship and grant management.
Collect, select and manage all your projects
in one single tool.